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The Proof is in the Distilleries: Kentucky's Distillation, Wine and Brewing Industry's Impact

Grapes grow at the vineyard on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, at Talon Winery in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Abbey Cutrer.

When two former University of Kentucky students, Andrew Bishop and Brandon Floan, recognized their shared passion for brewing, they immediately began planning ways they could turn their hobby into a business.

“We saw each other at a party one day and we had a six-pack of beer that we both had made, and I was like, ‘Oh, you brew too? Do you want to do this together?’” Bishop said. “So we did. We were really just in it for the fun of it … we wanted to see if we could make a Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada, and so we did.”

Bishop and Floan said they realized they had the opportunity to participate in the rapidly growing craft beer industry. They began developing their own recipes, looking into the nitty-gritty of the beer-making process in hopes of turning their hobby into a business.

“We had a lot of regrets about our major choices because we had to start learning a lot of biology and chemistry because that’s what is involved in making beer. So we had to spend a lot of time reading books and things like that to learn the science behind everything that we should’ve just gone ahead and taken at UK,” Bishop said.

As soon as they found an optimal location for their brewery, they began production as quickly as possible.

“As we got closer to the time of when we could open, we were getting equipment in, we’ve got the ball rolling, but you can’t just start selling stuff. The beer takes anywhere between 10 to 22 days to go from grain to glass, so you have to build up your inventory before you can open, but we didn’t have the budget,” Bishop said.

While the brewery was still in its infancy, Bishop and Floan worked separate jobs to keep themselves afloat. Floan worked for Kentucky Ale Taproom in hopes of learning how to organize a larger brewery system, and Bishop worked as a server.

“I got an air mattress so I could stay at the brewery because it saved me 40 minutes' worth of driving home to sleep. I would wake up at about 4:35 in the morning and I’d get the first brew going. Then right around seven and eight o’clock Brandon would get off work in the morning and he would come to tag me out,” Bishop said.

Ethereal Brewing officially opened in November 2014. The Lexington natives have made over 400 different beers and have developed an in-house lab where they are able to perfect every aspect of their brewing process.

Rows of grapes overlook the barn on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, at Talon Winery in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Abbey Cutrer.

For individuals like Bishop and Floan, who wished to acquire insight into the alcohol industry while pursuing their undergraduate degrees, the University of Kentucky has invested in faculty, resources, and farmland in order to establish its own distillation, wine and brewing studies.

As Kentucky-based distillation, winemaking and brewing has continued to have a significant economic impact on the state, the program emphasizes potential career opportunities for students planning to stay in Kentucky after graduation or program completion.

“Kentucky is the No. 1 distilling state in the United States for bourbon, whiskey and now an emerging wine industry with around 70 wineries in the state,” said Seth Debolt, program director.

Since its founding, the program has undergone significant evolution, as an undergraduate certification in distillation, wine and brewing studies became available for students upon completion of the program in 2015. In 2019, the program became fully accessible to online students, expanding its reach to those off campus.

Debolt said the benefit of pursuing the program can be integrated into several other areas of study. Becoming certified in distillation, wine and brewing can leverage students across a wide range of disciplines, from business and marketing to students from STEM backgrounds.

Since Prohibition, the alcohol industry in Kentucky has grown significantly, becoming one of the most prevalent industries in the state. However, since the overturning of the Prohibition Act in 1933, several counties in Kentucky have yet to allow legal distribution and distillation of alcohol.

Two brothers, Jeremy and Andrew Buchanan, recalled the irony that despite being raised in the birthplace of bourbon whiskey, the county had no active distilleries selling or producing whiskey. But this wasn’t always the case. Jeremy said that prior to Prohibition, the economy of Bourbon County, Kentucky, was largely supported by the bourbon production of the 26 active distilleries in the county.

“One night, I was drinking with my brother, and we just remarked, ‘Man, isn’t it crazy there are still no distilleries in Bourbon County?’ In January of 1920 on a Saturday, the sale of alcohol was legal, and then the following Sunday it was illegal and none of those distilleries came back. That just really stuck with my brother and I,” Jeremy said.

At the time, Andrew had some experience with brewing making moonshine in his basement. The brothers then decided to be the ones to bring bourbon back to Bourbon County by opening their own “little brewery” called Hartsfield & Company.

“We put together some investors and started with two little 26-gallon stills down on Main Street in Paris and we brought back bourbon to Bourbon County. It had been 95 years since whiskey had been legally distilled in Bourbon County,” Jeremy said.

Since its official opening in 2014, Hartsfield & Co. has been dedicated to preserving the tradition of spirits crafted before Prohibition.

“We just have a super unique product; we call it pre-prohibition style bourbon. We really wanted to pay homage to the kind of spirits that were being made before Prohibition,” Jeremy said.

To preserve the pre-Prohibition taste profile, the brewery emphasizes precision in its brewing technique, producing about a barrel a day. Each batch is intentionally and carefully created from natural ingredients.

Hartsfield & Co. generates a significant amount of traffic as it is among one of the many stops in the Bluegrass Region of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. Jeremy described the personal and hands-on experience his brewery offers customers.

The processing room overlooks the grounds on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, at Talon Winery in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Abbey Cutrer.

“With my dad, brother and I around, people just like to interact with the folks that started the company, those who poured in their blood, sweat and tears,” Jeremy said. “When you go to bigger breweries, you’re interacting with a tour guide, someone who has basically memorized a script, which is fine. But for Hartsfield, we really pride ourselves on letting people get up close to the still and if we're distilling that day, sometimes we let people taste right off the still, which you aren’t going to get at a larger production facility.”

Despite Kentucky being widely known for its distillation and brewing, the first winery in the country was established in Kentucky, and according to Kentucky Proud, there are currently 76 operating wineries in the state.

Talon Winery was founded in 1999 on 300 acres of farmland, surrounded by horse farms that Lauren Rutherford, the marketing director for the winery, described as providing the ideal scenic southern country atmosphere.

“It gives people a really nice escape to come out here. It feels like you’re on vacation but you’re really not that far. We have a lot of locals coming in, buying a glass or a bottle and hanging out for the day. It had turned into more of an experience than a stop along away,” Rutherford said.

The founder of Talon Winery, Harriet Allen, was one of 14 siblings. Rutherford said that at the time, Allen’s family had a long history of heart disease. Allen had heard red wine had been linked to supporting heart health, thereby inspiring Allen to enter into the wine business with little to no knowledge of the industry. Allen and her husband went on to open the first winery established in Fayette County.

“It all just kind of came together for her. She is very on the go, she has the most energy of anyone I’ve ever met,” Rutherford said.

Talon Winery has been fully family-owned and -operated since its opening. Rutherford said the women in the family have made the winery what it is today, as Talon has become the biggest winery in the county.

“Harriet had two daughters and they started working here in different capacities. One of them does HR, one of them does bookkeeping, but it is a family business where you do whatever needs to be done. I am the third generation, one of the three daughters, and then I have two daughters. We’ve done numerous things in the industry. Whether it be tastings off-site, bookkeeping, events, you kind of have your hand in every pot when you’re in a family business,” Rutherford said.

While Kentucky might not be widely known for its wine production compared to other regions in our country like the West Coast, Rutherford said that the Kentucky climate supports specific grape varieties extremely well, making the state’s wine blends rather uncommon and unique.

Distillation, wine and brewing studies continue to provide students with firsthand insight into the complex world of alcohol production. The success stories of several Lexington local businesses serve as a further reminder of the potential prosperity in the multi-billion-dollar Kentucky alcohol industry.


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